Why Canít Congress Stop Spending?
Congress spent one evening last week debating a token measure to reduce government spending by implementing very slight caps on some future entitlements. Not surprisingly, even this exceedingly modest bill failed overwhelmingly. The process behind the vote, however, reveals just how deeply ingrained the spending problem really is.
House leaders knew the spending control bill had little chance of passing. In fact, thatís why they allowed the vote to happen. The real goal was to appease fiscal conservatives in Congress, some of whom have become increasingly uncomfortable with the unrestrained spending contained in the proposed 2004 budget. Some of these conservatives supported an alternative budget that merely spent about 1% less than the proposed budget, and even that nominal act of rebellion earned them the ire of House leadership. The spending control measure considered last week was merely a symbolic gesture designed to quash their complaints and ensure cooperation when the final budget vote is cast later this year. After all, those members now can tell their constituents they voted to keep a lid on spending, even as they please their party bosses later.
The pressure to go along with the herd in Congress is intense, regardless of which party is in control. Every member knows that thwarting his partyís leadership, particularly on budget matters, is risky. Any opposition to spending bills can result in veiled or even outright threats to cut funding for the memberís district, to limit the memberís committee assignments, and to bury the memberís legislation. Some members who buck the system find themselves facing primary opponents in the next election as a result. The desire to win reelection is paramount, and those who go along get plenty of help from their partyís fundraising machines.
Predictably, almost all members of the House Appropriations committee- the committee initially responsible for every nickel of federal spending- voted against the bill. This simply highlights the institutional problem that plagues Congress and government in general: no politician ever voluntarily relinquishes power. In Congress, control of the nationís purse strings represents the ultimate power. Appropriators can reward some lawmakers and punish others with the stroke of a pen, by adding or eliminating federal projects in any congressional district. No amount of talk about spending can change the reality that government power naturally grows.
Everybody complains about pork, but members of Congress keep spending because voters do not throw them out of office for doing so. The rotten system in Congress will change only when the American people change their beliefs about the proper role of government in our society. Too many members of Congress believe they can solve all economic problems, cure all social ills, and bring about worldwide peace and prosperity simply by creating new federal programs. We must reject unlimited government and reassert the constitutional rule of law if we hope to halt the spending orgy.
The words of H.R. Gross, the great libertarian-conservative congressman from Iowa, ring as true today as they did during a budget debate in 1974:
ďNo amount of legislation will instill in a majority of the members of the House the ingredient, the element that has been missing. That is fiscal responsibility. Every Member knows that he or she cannot for long spend $75,000 a year on a salary of $42,000 and remain solvent. Every member knows this government cannot forever spend billions beyond tax revenue and endure. Congress already has the tools to halt the headlong flight into bankruptcy. It holds the purse strings. No President can impound funds or spend unwisely unless an improvident, reckless Congress makes available the money. I repeat, neither this nor any other legislation will provide morality and responsibility on the part of members of Congress.Ē